Back in 2007 Julian Gough won the BBC National Short Story Prize for 'The Orphan and the Mob', which later became the prologue for Jude: Level 1, a novel shortlisted for the 2008 Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction. And now, five years later, his story, 'The iHole', has been shortlisted for the BBC International Short Story Award.
'The iHole' playfully depicts the launch of the latest must-have gadget: a portable black hole. The media hype, the marketing, the industry competition and the consumer mania are laid bare in this satirical take on technology and consumerism in the 21st century. I caught up with Julian, ahead of the Award ceremony on Tuesday October 2, to talk tech.
Firstly, congratulations on being shortlisted for the BBC International Short Story Award. How does it make you feel?
"I'm ridiculously happy that my story has made the shortlist for the BBC International Short Story Award. If the Booker Prize is the literary equivalent of an Olympic gold in the marathon, then this is like qualifying for the 100 meters final. Short stories are over so fast, every step has to be perfect; an incredible amount of unseen preparation goes into their single, explosive burst of energy. And some of the best writers in the world specialise at this length. So, to find myself up against the Usain Bolts of the form is an incredible feeling. May the best writer win."
How did 'The iHole' come into being?
"'The iHole' is the product of my long and turbulent love affair with technology. (I first fell for a ZX81 computer, as a schoolboy, so this goes back a while.) As a kid, I read a lot of science fiction, I wanted to be an astronaut, I wrote my own computer games, in BASIC. But for some reason, in 2008, technology and I broke up for a while. The relationship had been too intense for too long; I guess we both needed some space... So from 2008 to 2011, I had no mobile phone, and no wifi at home. If I wanted to be online, I had to plug my battered old MacBook into the wall, in one corner of the living room. Everywhere else, I was offline. It was restful, and I got a lot of writing done.
"But, after four years, I got back together with technology. In fact, I was seduced one afternoon, by the iPad. Deep down I'd known for months, for years, that I wanted to touch it, to hold it, and when I started I couldn't stop, I couldn't let go. And it reacted to my touch and voice, it reacted to the angle I held it at. I'm not ashamed to say we fell in love. And so now technology and I are like that again; I've several mobile phones, an iPad, a laptop, wifi, and innumerable SIM cards of all nations for when I go abroad.
"I suppose 'The iHole' came out of observing people's very peculiar, and complex, love/hate relationships with their iPhones and iPads. I'm fascinated by this rapidly moving frontline, where human beings meet technology. The standard literary view of the technological frontier is rather gloomy; as technology advances, humanity retreats; our memories are digitised and held on cloud servers; our relationships are routed along fibre optic cables. We're atomized, dispersed, less than human.
"But there's a far more positive way of looking at all this; maybe we're more than human. Enhanced. We've gained super-powers -- we can tell what our friends are thinking, from thousands of miles away. We have infinite memories, and total recall. We have the powers of Prospero. We are both Caliban and Ariel. Last night, for instance, I explored the desolate shores of Gough Island, using Google Earth. Summoned up a vision of a place I'd never seen before. The experience was beautiful, extraordinary, dreamlike. After all, we made this technology, so it merely reflects and exaggerates who we are. If we don't always like what we see, that reflects on us, not the technology."
So technology has had a big impact on what you write about?
"Technology isn't just changing the kind of stories I write, it's changing the way I write them. I wrote 'The iHole' using a small programme called Write or Die, which was developed by a programmer called Dr Wicked, to help writers produce first drafts. It's a bit buggy, it has no safety features, the chances of losing all your work are high if you click the wrong option... I'm totally in love with it, and highly recommend it to writers.
"Write or Die is a very simple program. (It's for PC or Mac; there's an app version for your iPad). You decide how many words you want to write, and in how many minutes. Say, 500 words, in 35 minutes. You choose a horrible noise, from a menu. Then you press "write", the timer starts to count down the 35 minutes, and you're off.
"And it forces you to write, by punishing you if you stop. Cease typing for more than a few seconds, and the screen turns blood red, while the hideous noise plays. (I usually choose out-tune-violins, but you may prefer the air-raid siren, or the crying baby.) It also rewards you, when you achieve your goal, with a little blast of triumphant trumpets, like a Ryanair flight when it lands on time. The experience radically changes the whole feeling of writing. Writing becomes a sport, an event, it feel dangerous. It's like playing a video game."
Do you feel that the short story is particularly suited to the digital age?
"I'd put it the other way around; the digital age is particularly suited to the short story. We've always told each other stories, and they were usually short, or broken up into short, self-contained episodes, like the Greek myths, or bible stories, or fairy tales, or fables. That's the natural length of a story; a tale told by firelight, wrapped up before the kids get bored. But then of course the invention of the printing press led to the creation of the novel, which is a most peculiar artifact.
"The 300 page novel, much as I love it, isn't really a natural storytelling form, it's the side effect of an industrial process. A physical book, back in the day, was an expensive object to design, manufacture, and distribute; the fixed costs meant a book was expensive; and given that it was expensive, the reader expected a lot of story for the price -- the 90 page novel wasn't viable. And so the industrial era bent us, and our stories, out of shape. But a digital story can be any length, and price. The digital world is in some ways allowing people, and stories, to assume their natural shapes again."
The BBC International Short Story Award 2012 Anthology is published by Comma Press.